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NIAGARA FALLS – A tourism mecca at the edge of one of the world’s most famous natural attractions.

That’s the idea behind Niagara University’s plans to establish a center for high-tech innovation in the tourism in downtown Niagara Falls.

Called the Niagara Global Tourism Institute, it would be the second institution of higher learning to set up shop downtown, after Niagara County Community College opened its highly successful Niagara Falls Culinary Institute last fall on Old Falls Street.

Niagara University envisions the tourism institute would be both a learning space for students in the school’s existing college of hospitality and tourism as well as a center where cutting-edge innovations in tourism are developed to help market and develop Niagara Falls.

Given existing regional assets and proposed developments, the university wants to “provide a continuum of support for the development of tourism as a major driver of the economy of Western New York,” said Bonnie Rose, Niagara’s vice president of academic affairs.

“What the Niagara Global Tourism Institute is really all about is providing a unique resource that is suited to the tourism sector in the Buffalo Niagara region,” Rose said, “and that really will provide catalysts, information and human resource development to help the industry, or the sector, to deliver on the economic contributions that we should see from that sector.”

The first phase of the project is a $415,000 effort.

The Western New York Power Proceeds Allocation Board in November recommended the project receive a $250,000 grant from the New York Power Authority.

The university, which has committed the balance of the funding to make the first phase happen, is talking with the city and USA Niagara Development Corp., the state’s economic development arm in the Falls, about potential space for the institute, Rose said.

The institute will be led by Eddie Friel, a tourism professor and expert-in-residence at Niagara.

One of the first sets of research of the institute will be to “map out the assets that we have” in Niagara Falls and its surrounding area to help Niagara Falls compete better with its Canadian counterpart, Rose said, including attractions, gaming centers and major hotels.

“Just drawing that data together, it provides a solid foundation for future planning,” she said, “because in today’s world, our competitors – we do have to compete with the world when we want to bring people to Niagara Falls – whether in Cleveland or China, help people put together packages that are unique to their interests.”

The institute will also focus on being a source in the high-tech industry developing around tourism, Rose said.

Travelers today expect to be able to plan and book a trip online and put packages together themselves.

Building applications for mobile devices and working with “virtual reality labs” are two examples Rose cited for the technological components the institute will be involved in.

The virtual reality labs provide simulations of tourism experiences for marketing purposes as well as a visitor’s own experience. Rose called them “very important to the industry.”

But they’re expensive and sophisticated to use, which is where the Global Tourism Institute will step in to help use and train others to use them, she said.

The institute will also help new and growing tourism businesses with incubator space focused on small businesses and entrepreneurs.

Another element of the institute will be job training.

Rose said there is no timeline set for when the institute may open, but she said she expects the first year will include providing support services for the hospitality and tourism sector, while the center should be fully up and running by year three.

Niagara University’s planned institute stems from research done by Millier Dickinson Blais, a Canadian firm.

Mayor Paul A. Dyster said the city supports the project, which he described as part of the city’s strategy to partner with educational institutions, particularly for the revival of the tourism industry and the city’s downtown.

“If we stick with the way tourism was done 50 years ago, we’re going to be left in the dust by our global competitors,” Dyster said.

Officials hope the institute is among several centers of excellence internationally in 10 years, said Dyster, who sits on Niagara University’s board of external advisers.

“If we’re going to be on the cutting edge of the global tourism industry, we have to be at the forefront of the development of those technologies,” the mayor said.

Dyster also said NU’s Global Tourism Institute has a “close relationship” with the long-proposed Niagara Experience Center, an ambitious but never-realized plan for a top-of-the-line interactive museums.

Positive news for one means positive news for the other, the mayor said.

Developing this project in the Falls was important to NU, Rose said, because it would help an industry that provides jobs for anyone looking to get into the workforce, which helps people become more productive citizens and fight against poverty.

“We feel a strong drive – the same kind of drive that has made our programs so well known around the world really,” Rose said. “We feel a strong commitment and drive to bring everything we have home to Niagara Falls and Western New York as quickly as possible to help support turning this industry around.”

email: abesecker@buffnews.com